I expected my morning newspaper to bring stories about angry American voters and American politicians behaving ridiculously: data about the state of our democracy. I did not expect to see a wide-ranging essay on German democracy by one of the world’s greatest living political thinkers, Jürgen Habermas. Having him pop up in the Times a few days before the election was like suddenly receiving a briefing from Isaiah Berlin or Reinhold Niebuhr.
Habermas describes three phenomena as broadly linked. The first is rising xenophobia, defined nowadays by religion instead of race or language. “With an arrogant appropriation of Judaism—and an incredible disregard for the fate the Jews suffered in Germany—the apologists of the leitkultur [national culture] now appeal to the ‘Judeo-Christian tradition,’ which distinguishes ‘us’ from the foreigners.” In contrast, Habermas’ own position is radically cosmopolitan and liberal: “the state should demand [no] more of its immigrants than learning the language of the country and accepting the principles of the Constitution.” Even in our pluralist democracy of immigrants, that is not a settled position; many people, including some on the left, believe that the community has a right to teach some elements of a national culture. In fact, I would count myself in that camp.
The second phenomenon is “the rejection of political parties and party politics,” in favor of “charismatic figures who stand above the political infighting.” Habermas finds that trend disturbing in the light of German history, but it is certainly evident here as well.
And the third phenomenon is a wave of mass protests against government decisions, especially public protests against a huge public building project in Stuttgart. Habermas blames the government: “the authorities did not, in fact, provide sufficient information … , and thus citizens did not have an opportunity to develop an informed opinion on which they could have based their votes. To insist that they should have no further say in the development is to rely on a formalistic understanding of democracy.” They are taking to the streets because the government ignored the principles of deliberative democracy.
Habermas traces all three trends to a “helpless political system.” National governments are weakening, and “politics submits to what appear to be inevitable economic imperatives.” As a result, people naturally lose faith in representative/deliberative institutions. He doesn’t mention European integration, but that is surely one reason that the state is weakening. (European integration is a direct reason for the Stuttgart train station project, which has E.U. funding.)
Somewhat surprisingly,* Habermas ends with a favorable comparison to our side of the Atlantic. “The United States has a president with a clear-headed political vision, even if he is embattled and now meets with mixed feelings. What is needed in Europe is a revitalized political class that overcomes its own defeatism with a bit more perspective, resoluteness and cooperative spirit. Democracy depends on the belief of the people that there is some scope left for collectively shaping a challenging future.”
*I am not surprised that Habermas holds positive views of the United States; that has been true all along. I am surprised to see anyone favorably evaluate our politics at this precise moment.